As we continue to engage in theological controversy over the church’s teachings on human sexuality and other matters, one common refrain that pops up is the claim that God is doing a new thing today. God is revealing new truth, and we are to receive that truth and act upon it as a church.
The questions raised by this claim have to do with what is called “continuing revelation” or “progressive revelation.” The claim is that God’s revelation to humanity did not stop with the book of Revelation, but continues through the centuries, as we gain new insight into God and God’s will for life. In most cases, those who believe in continuing revelation claim that these new insights and new understandings can even contradict the teachings of Scripture. Thus, our new understandings about homosexuality can, in this view, make the Bible’s teachings about homosexual practice obsolete.
It is commonly accepted that there is progressive revelation within Scripture. Genesis 1 doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about God and life. What we see throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments is an unfolding of spiritual truth, as the biblical writers revealed greater insights and understanding. In most cases, later understandings do not conflict with earlier teachings, but clarify and refine them. So for instance, there are hints at various places in the Old Testament that people will be raised from the dead at the judgment day. But a full understanding of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is set forth in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul and Revelation.
The scriptural warrant for progressive revelation within the Bible is found in John 14:25-26, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Usually, this is interpreted as a promise to the eleven apostles that the Holy Spirit will work through them to remember and record the teachings of Jesus and to reveal the truth that is needed. It was this promise to the apostles that guided the early church in designating only those writings believed to come from the apostles as Holy Scripture. (Paul got in on the promise late because he saw the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and during the time he spent in the wilderness before his ministry began – see Galatians 1:16-17.)
The church believed that, when the last apostle died, the canon of Scripture was closed. In other words, there would be no more writings bearing God’s authority equal to Scripture after that time. The book of Revelation was placed last in the New Testament, concluding with these words, “If anyone adds anything to [the words of the prophecy of this book], God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life …” (Revelation 22:18-19). Although these words relate specifically to the Book of Revelation, the church applied them to the entire Bible, believing that nothing should be added or subtracted from the Biblical revelation as it was found and codified at that point.
The claim today, however, is that the Holy Spirit can teach and reveal new truths that go beyond and even contradict the teachings of the Bible. We must recognize that such a claim is not in accord with United Methodist beliefs. Our Confession of Faith puts it well when it says, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Article IV). The Articles of Religion contain almost identical language in Article V. These articles leave room for theological speculation and greater understanding of the teachings of Scripture and how they apply to contemporary contexts. But they specifically rule out any doctrine or understanding that is not revealed or established in the Bible as being something that United Methodists must believe.
Our doctrinal standards thus rule out the claim that, although the Bible teaches that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will, we have a new understanding today that means we can disregard the teachings of Scripture. One of the marks of the true church is where “the pure Word of God is preached,” (Articles of Religion, Article XIII)—not where theological speculations are taken as God’s revelation or where “modern” understandings supplant ancient doctrines.
The Bible is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). We must base our beliefs and teachings on the solid foundation of Scripture or risk being cast adrift on the ever-changing currents of human culture.